Shepherd One, Cleared to Land: How the Pope Flies

Feb 7, 2019

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On Sunday, Pope Francis landed in Abu Dhabi to a glamorous reception by the Emirati royals, stepping off the plane into what may be the world’s most luxurious jetway. The notoriously frugal Francis, known for flying coach when he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, may not have liked the opulence. But when popes fly, they travel as befits a head of state, which they are. And so, therefore, does Francis. How does the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion people all over the world fly?

The first papal flight was in 1964, when Pope Paul VI traveled to Israel. At the time, a pope leaving the Vatican, much less taking a then still rare jet, was huge news — and his flight aboard an Alitalia DC-8 to the Holy Land and back definitely made big headlines worldwide. Since then, the leaders of the Catholic Church have begun traveling far and wide, none more so than John Paul II, who in 27 years as pope visited 129 countries and flew 725,000 miles, according to data cited by the Daily Telegraph.

IRELAND - OCTOBER 01: Pope John Paul II waves as he boards an Aer Lingus flight at Shannon Airport following his visit to Ireland on October 01, 1979 in Ireland. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Pope John Paul II waves as he boards an Aer Lingus 747 at Shannon Airport following his visit to Ireland on October 1, 1979. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Contrary to other governments, which own aircraft  that shuttle heads of state around, the Vatican doesn’t own a jet that can fly long distances. Since Pope Paul VI, Italian flag carrier Alitalia has been tasked with ferrying the pope on his missions out of Rome (more later on how he gets back.)

These Alitalia flights carrying the Pope all get a special flight number, AZ4000. Sometimes it also gets the call sign Shepherd One, for example when Francis visited the United States in 2015.

Flight numbers 4000 and above are reserved for special, non-scheduled Alitalia flights. For example, when the 777-200ER that had flown Francis to Abu Dhabi returned to Rome empty, it bore the flight number AZ8033.

When flying longer distances, Alitalia assigns its widebody jets to the Papal mission, either the A330-200 or the 777. Upon landing, pilots open the cockpit windows and display the flag of the country being visited, alongside the Vatican’s standard.

The plane carrying Pope Francis to Chile arrives at the Arturo Merino Benitez airport in Santiago on January 15, 2018.Pope Francis is visiting Chile from January 15 to 18, before heading to Peru from January 18 to 21. / AFP PHOTO / Martin BERNETTI (Photo credit should read MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Boeing 777 carrying Pope Francis to Chile arrives at the Arturo Merino Benitez airport in Santiago on January 15, 2018. Out of the flight deck windows, as customary, it flies the flag of the host country (left) and the Vatican. (Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

On shorter hops, the Pope flies on an Alitalia single-aisle Airbus jet, like the A320 or A321. And to navigate even smaller distances, the Pope travels in a helicopter operated by the Italian Air Force, most frequently an Agusta Westland AW139 also used by Italian government officials.

While many have considered Pope Francis a man of the people, he still flies up front in business. The Pope and his top advisors sit in Alitalia’s lie-flat seats, but the traveling press are relegated to coach. The Vatican actually does not burden Italian taxpayers with the cost of his travels, the Catholic publication Crux reports. Members of the press are required to purchase business class fares, which gets them prime access to the pope but just a seat in economy aboard AZ4000. Since everyone in the economy cabin is paying premium prices, this helps subsidize the price tag of the flight, which the Vatican charters from Alitalia. Pilots and flight attendants are employees of Alitalia as well.

Onboard, journalists find Pope Francis’ coat of arms on the seat’s headrests. On the most recent flight, food and amenities were better than what a normal Alitalia flyer would enjoy — with “Ferragamo face mist and hand towels” in the bathrooms and a menu that was a “cut above the usual warmed-up fare,” Abu Dhabi-based The National reports.

Pope Francis does frequent the back of the aircraft, routinely chatting with members of the press, handing out religious objects and blessing rosaries for those onboard. He even performed an impromptu in-flight wedding for two LATAM flight attendants when he was traveling in Chile last year.

Journalists participating at the Papal Flight to Panama for the 34th World Youth Day. Flight Rome-Panama, January 23rd, 2019 (photo by Grzegorz Galazka/Archivio Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Journalists in flight with the pope from Rome to Panama, January 23rd, 2019 (Photo by Grzegorz Galazka/Archivio Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

The pope also sends blessings to the countries he’s flying over. The papal messages sent to Egypt’s President Sisi on Monday read: “To his excellency Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. I extend cordial greetings to your excellency and the people of Egypt as I fly over your country on my way to the United Arab Emirates for a pastoral visit. Invoking the blessing of the Almighty upon the nation, I pray that He may all grant you peace and joy.”

It may be tradition for the pope and papal staff to fly Alitalia from Rome, and it’s also a custom that when departing from wherever they’ve been, they will fly that state’s flag carrier back to Italy.

With a quick search of Getty Images, we found that Pope Francis has flown these carriers since he took office in 2013:

  • LATAM
  • Biman Bangladesh Airlines
  • Air Baltic
  • Avianca
  • TAP Portugal
  • LOT
  • Aeromexico
  • American Airlines
  • LAN
  • Boliviana de Aviación
  • Sri Lankan
  • Etihad

These flights only occur if a country’s airline is deemed safe, if the airline has extra aircraft available and if there’s even a carrier at all. The pope flew Alitalia back to Rome after his visits from Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic; the latter two countries do not have a long-haul airline.

Pope Francis walks up the stairs before boarding a plane after his three-day visit to Bangladesh, in Dhaka on December 2, 2017.Pope Francis arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar on November 30 for the second stage of a visit that has been overshadowed by the plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. / AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis boarding a Biman Bangladesh Airlines Boeing 787 after his three-day visit to Bangladesh, in Dhaka on December 2, 2017. (Photo by PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

The most recent aircraft to become Shepherd One was an Etihad 787 Dreamliner when it carried Pope Francis from the UAE back to Rome on Tuesday.

This Pope’s already checked off flying on an aircraft that’s recently been added to many AvGeek’s lists — the new Airbus A220. Francis hopped between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Air Baltic’s A220 in September.

Featured image by PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images.

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